When the Panamanian golden frogs at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo sit stock still, they look more like rubber toys than animals. Scientists fear that rubber toys may be all that's left of this and hundreds of other species of frogs soon, due to a killer fungus that is decimating amphibians worldwide.
The zoo announced Monday that it is part of The Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project being launched by eight zoos and research institutions.
Frogs face shrinking habitat, pesticides that make them sprout extra legs, and Prozac-spiked water. But the crisis is caused by the chytrid fungus. Experts think 122 species are gone forever, primarily because of the fungus, which was spread by human activity.
There are about 6,000 species of amphibians, said veterinarian Della Garelle, the director of conservation and animal health at the zoo, and a third of those species could disappear.
Soon, The Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project will dispatch teams of veterinarians, keepers and educators to the jungles of Panama. They are racing to a region where the chytrid fungus hasn't yet struck.
Their mission will be to capture as many species of frogs as they can - they hope for 20 to 40 - and create captive breeding populations in Panama with frogs that haven't been infected. Researchers want to know if the natural bacteria from healthy frogs can be used to fight off the fungus.
The goal, Garelle said, is to find a cure for chytrid and then release the frog species they rescued back into the wild.
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo helped envision the project along with the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., said zoo spokesman Sean Anglum. Because it's a private nonprofit that doesn't use public funds, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo could bankroll the emergency effort while other institutions spend months or years jumping through government hoops.
Anglum said he didn't know how much money the zoo is spending on the project.
The zoo has a history of successfully releasing endangered animals back into the wild.
One achievement is its breeding program for the Wyoming toad, an amphibian that lives in the wild inside only one nature preserve. Several zoos are trying to save the Wyoming toad, but the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo reported it was the only one to release animals back into the wild last year.
The zoo will also try to safeguard the Boreal toad (Colorado's only alpine toad) and Mantella frogs from Madagascar in its Amphibian Conservation Center.
The zoo Monday also unveiled an exhibit of frogs inside the Aquatics building called "Leaping to the Rescue."
• Throw drugs in the trash instead of the toilet.
• Use organic fertilizer and weed killers.
• Preserve wetland habitats.
• Acquire pets from reputable captive breeding programs that aren't collecting from the wild, and don't release pets into the wild.
• To learn more go to amphibianrescue.com
Why Save Frogs?
Early warning system
Amphibians - frogs, toads, newts and salamanders - are very sensitive to environmental change because of their permeable skin. They alert humans when things are going awry. For example, changes in frogs can indicate the effects of fertilizers at levels so low we can't test for it.
Amphibians are used in hundreds of labs for the benefit of humans, and may be of help for diseases including AIDS and diabetes.
A world without frogs would be overrun by flies and mosquitoes.